Loads of professional writing in the days ahead, so one long post today, then shorter ones, probably.
The following are ten reasons why the TV series Lost in Space isn’t that bad, at least as low-grade entertainment. I’m not going to cheat by claiming that it’s so bad that it’s good. As science fiction, narrative storytelling and even as mid-60s television, it was pretty bad. And yet there were redeeming elements—jewels in the rockpiles—that make it worth a look, even now, 40 years after its premiere (September 15, 1965).
My conclusions come after viewing the first four episodes of the series on DVD recently. I don’t need to watch any more for now.
Dr. Smith. Of course. He’s the main reason for watching the show. In the 8th grade, I learned the word “poltroon,” a word you don’t hear much, but I realized at once that it fit Dr. Smith perfectly -- a complete coward. He’s television’s best poltroon, and certainly the show’s best character: besides cowardly, he was dishonest, unscrupulous, lazy, scheming, effete, prissy, condescending and foolish. Everything the tediously serious-minded Robinsons weren’t. The late Jonathan Harris hammed it up terrifically. No wonder he stole the show.
Interestingly, in the first episode he was violent as well, knocking out an armed guard with one blow to the neck, perhaps killing him (it isn’t clear). In the second episode, he shot an uncommunicative alien with a laser gun. These were things that the Dr. Smith of later episodes would never do.
A gay character? It doesn’t take much trolling on the Internet to come across the idea that Dr. Smith favored gentlemen, but in a coded way for mid-60s TV. Certainly some negative gay stereotypes were bundled with his character, unconsciously or not, and in one of the early episodes Mrs. Robinson even acknowledged that Dr. Smith -- who had recently wanted to abandon her husband to a lonely death -- “was a good cook” (a more positive stereotype, that). But as far as I know, he never cast a longing eye at Dr. Robinson or Major West, so the point is moot.
The Robot (as a character). In a show of cardboard characters, the Robot became more interesting than anyone else except Dr. Smith. He too was violent in the early episode -- never heard of those Laws of Robotics, I figure -- but before long he’d evolved into a foil for Dr. Smith, who needed one. He had his own memorable catch phrases, too. The one with the most longevity is “Danger, Will Robinson, Danger!”
The Robot (as a design). Anthropomorphic in the tradition of science fiction robots, with a large debt to Robby the Robot in Forbidden Planet, it still had a cool design. The bubble head with blinking lights. The twirly things on its “shoulders.” The barrel chest with retractable hooked arms. The frontpiece that flashed when it spoke. The legs with treads. If I live long enough to see domestic servant robots available at middle-class prices (unlikely, but who knows), I want one that looks something like the Lost in Space Robot.
The Jupiter II. Now that’s optimism for you—mankind is able to build flying saucers by 1997. It made absolutely no sense as a spaceship. It seemed to have no redundancies. Dr. Smith broke the radio with his fist in a panic, and that was the end of communications with Earth. It was propelled how? By rotating lights on the base. It was navigated how? A plastic orb on a stick. Or maybe by some lights on the consol. And yet it flew through dangerous tinfoil asteroids and crash-landed dramatically in a California backlot desert when necessary. But somehow, despite everything, the idea of a flying saucer has real appeal, at least to the 12-year-old I once was, and I can’t think of any other TV SF that features one so prominently.
The Chariot. Clearly, the show was ahead of its time in modes of vehicular transport. The Chariot (a great throwaway name) was enormous, carried the whole family plus lots of gear, and could travel over rough terrain. In other words, a kind of SUV.
The fact that the show was set in 1997. Tempus fugit, eh? I suspect the producers just picked the launch date of October 16, 1997, out of a hat. When I was young, it sounded remote in the future. Now it’s becoming remote in the past, a month before my oldest child was born. Before launch, a gray-haired, paternal sort of President of the United States wished the Robinsons well by video. Obviously, it wasn’t Bill Clinton. Who would have believed in 1965 that the 1990s would sport a youngish chief executive, a charmer who might have requested a one-on-one meeting with Judy Robinson in the Oval Office before her historic journey?
The show’s attitude toward space science. Science fiction has long had the problem of adapting itself to science fact, with the speed of light proving especially troublesome. Reams of technobabble have been devoted to getting around that natural speed limit. How does Lost in Space handle this problem? It ignores it. You might call it the Irwin Allen method. As a youngster with a little more science knowledge than most of my peers, this used to bother me. No longer. Ultimately, the Irwin Allen method is just as reasonable as any other approach, and doesn’t clutter up the narrative by explaining away things that can’t really be explained away.
Related to that is the show’s refreshingly casual approach to space travel. Flying in space was something like getting into your station wagon and taking off. In the first episode, technicians were inside the Jupiter II until about two minutes before liftoff. Oops, the door closed on Dr. Smith -- who had been communicating with the enemy while inside the spaceship, which no one noticed. When Dr. Robinson wanted to walk in space, he popped on his space helmet like he was putting on motorcycle helmet, and out he went. His rope snapped. Gee, government procurement of shoddy goods is still a problem in the future. A hot comet came along (hot comet? In the Irwin Allen universe, yes) and threatened to barbecue him and Mrs. Robinson, who had gone out to save him. The heat causes the hatch to jam. Major West uses a fire extinguisher to cool it off.
And so on. But really, the show’s casual approach to space travel is only slightly less sophisticated than most television, and charming in a sort of Buck Rogers way. The slow and exacting nuances of real space travel have no place a popular visual medium anyway.
The parade of bug-eyed monsters. None of this “seek out new life and new civilizations” claptrap for Lost in Space. Life invariably sought out the Robinsons, and it wasn’t civilized. Often, these BEMs looked suspiciously like papier-mache, wood and paint confections, or men in rubber suits. No matter. I think it’s the consistency with which they showed up that impresses me. Another episode, another bug-eyed monster to deal with.
The Carrot Man. There was another kind of alien on the show sometimes, the walking, English-talking member of an alien species that represented mortal peril to the Robinsons. Often, Dr. Smith tries to cut a deal with these creatures, which he inevitably bungles. None was more hilarious than the man in a carrot suit. Lost in Space lore has it than Guy Williams and June Lockhart had a hard time keeping a straight face while filming this episode, one of the last of the series, and I believe it. But think about it. A giant, man-faced carrot who wants to steal your water to irrigate himself? The stuff of a bad acid trip. Just in synch with 1968, when the show aired.
Labels: space exploration, television